The fact I can get it right away with a lot more fun and addicting and I don't think that it was not immediately available to all of them in my head.
That last sentence was brought to you by clicking the autofill button on my iPad a bunch of times. Strangely, it kinda makes sense? But not really.
So, Smug Puggerinos, how are you guys doing? I hope the holidays went well for you. I've been busy freelancing and writing, and will have some awesome news to share with you soon. Until then, I've been busy finishing up my work on the Infinity Tabletop RPG, which will be available soon. There was an awesome team in place for this one, and I know you'll like it.
Meanwhile my chief minions Cokie and Flot have been doing their best to interfere with writing. Flot has been having more stomach issues as of late, and has been spending a lot of time in my lap keeping my hands from typing on the keyboard. Cokie is having tooth problems, but is still the lovable puggle that steals pumpkin pie from my sister Tina.
The purpose of my post today is to talk about building mysteries in role playing games. We've all seen mystery programs on television or read about them in books; there is something strange going on, and the investigators must solve the mystery in order to resolve the conflict that is taking place. It sounds simple enough; put in a murdered waiter at a dinner party and watch the players play Who Did It?
But is it really that simple? Truth be told, it can be a monumentally difficult task to build a mystery in your game. Unless you are running a game where Lord Treachorio Stabbington is gleefully steeping his fingers to the side as you discover the murdered waiter, you may run into many hiccups along the way.
1. The Lack of Evidence
One of the main driving forces behind a mystery is the pursuit of evidence. Players will want to find clues that can lead them on the right path, otherwise they walk around like Chief Wiggum going "DID YOU DO IT?" The evidence is more than just a smoking gun, or a confession left by the killer. It is the transitory piece that moves the investigation along.
A lack of evidence can leave the players in a quandary, especially if that evidence does not provide enough information on the case at hand. For example:
The players find a scrap of blue velvet in the murder victim's hand. No one at the party is wearing velvet, and there is no evidence of this piece of cloth being in the restaurant. The players analyze the cloth, but cannot find anything special about it.
This can stymie the players attempts at continuing the investigation, because the cloth has told them nothing. It was in the waiter's hand, but they are unable to uncover anything special about it. They know it's a piece of the puzzle, but in this case it's not just difficulty in finding where to place the piece in the puzzle, but if it's even to the right puzzle.
Evidence needs to have significance other than "Lord Treachorio likes the color blue." It must have something to it where it can come into play during the scene. Perhaps the piece of blue velvet has some strange chemical splashed on it, or perhaps the players learn from one of the witnesses that they saw blue velvet curtains at a nearby house.
The same goes for finding character witnesses as well. If the players know that the Man In The Green Hat was seen leaving shortly before the waiter dies, they need to be able to find the Man. The NPC needs to be able to react to the players questions with enough detail to fill them in on the mystery, and it cannot be just "Ah ha, you have found me. The killer is Steve over in the corner."
Remember that evidence will be the thing that helps move the story along and helps the players build their case.
2. Too Much Evidence
We've seen how a lack of evidence can hinder the investigation, but there is another threat that can stop an investigation cold in its tracks: An abundance of uselss evidence.
While players will often try to drift towards finding the Smoking Gun, they will also look for information in every place that comes to their mind. There comes the risk of filling a scene with too much information that can derail the investigation. For example:
The Waiter is a card carrying member of the Elk Lodge, and five dinner guests in attendance are members of the Lodge. The players, assuming that the Elk Lodge and the guests are somehow involved, will then begin a detailed investigation on each guest as well as going to the nearby Elk Lodge. They will invest so much time looking into the Elk Lodge, in fact, that they miss the clue that the waiter was killed for gambling debts unrelated to the Lodge. This has not only cost the players time, but frustrated them as they have not been able to solve the crime.
If evidence is included in the scene, it must be involved somehow in the mystery. It is OK for evidence to lead the players along the wrong path in the short term, as this can be used by the players to eliminate NPCs as suspects. "It turns out that despite his business card being in the waiters wallet, Niles is innocent. He and the waiter were lovers."
It is important to keep in mind that evidence can also tell the players multiple things as the story progresses. If the scrap of blue velvet not only came from a nearby house but is revealed to have small traces of cocaine on it, it can tell the players that they are looking for a house where narcotics are kept at.
3. The Story Must Be Malleable
As any seasoned GM, DM, Storyteller, or whatever title your game runner chooses can attest, no adventure ever fully survives contact with the players. I have had players who have defeated a long skyscraper dungeon crawl with the phrase "Wait, we can fly. Lets just go to the top."
But more importantly, when it comes to a mystery, the story must adapt as the players work to solve it. A player who has his character built around solving cyber crimes may decide to investigate the waiter's cell phone, which may contain sensitive information that could completely cripple the mystery and lead the players from Start to Finish right away.
That means that you need to be prepared with how to handle this. It can be disappointing to have players see through the cunning charade and solve the mystery in five minutes, but remember that the players build their characters to do useful things. Even a Bard will want to use their Bardic Knowledge to their best advantage, and its important to figure out how to deal with the mystery as circumstances change.
Maybe the phone is not the waiters, and now the waiter is lying there with a burner phone whose owner is a mystery. Or perhaps the messages on the phone are with an unknown number, and the players learn that the waiter tried to skip out on paying his gambling debts to an unknown person and had been receiving threats for weeks.
The same goes for if players follow false leads. If the players assume that they must find the souce of all blue velvet curtains in Manhattan, the GM must figure out a way to bring them back into the plot without having an NPC show up and say "No, go that other way." Nudging the players rather than pushing them can help put them on the right path, but having a strictly aligned story that the players must follow in order to solve the mystery can be boring, and can cause many players to feel that they do not need to try as hard to uncover the mystery.
4. Remember That The Mystery Should Be Fun
Mysteries should be enticing to the players, and be something that they genuinely want to solve. It may be disheartening to hear the players say "Let's let the police handle it" but if the players are not wanting to find out why the waiter was killed, railroading them back into the mystery will only put strain on the group. The same goes with having a long, drawn out investigation. If the pay off to the mystery is "The waiter died because he poked a rabid badger with a spoon" then the players will feel like they spent their time poorly.
Make the mystery somehow impact the players. Perhaps they liked the waiter, or the waiter was a friend of theirs. Maybe one of the players is implicated in the waiter's death, or the waiter's death is part of a much larger mystery. The mystery should seem like a priority that they want to engage in, but not a crippling priority where a police officer with a glowing neon sign that says "SOLVE MYSTERY NOW" follows them at each turn.
And keep in mind the sensitivity of your players. Some mysteries can turn dark, and some players love it when they do. But do not have the murdered waiter lead to a dark and heavy mystery involving rape and mutilation if the players feel uncomfortable with it. Nothing is worse than telling someone that they need to uncover the truth behind a mystery and that they need to feel icky and gross for doing it.
I hope all of this has helped in some way! And remember, even if the mystery is solved in five minutes, it does not mean that you did a bad job. It just means your players are pretty skilled at solving mysteries, and may be greatly anticipating the next one you throw at them.
As of right now, I am looking at Midwinter, Indiana Comic Con, Inconjunction, and Gen Con for next year. If anyone has any conventions to recommend to me, I'd love to hear about it! My email is JKMyth at gmail dot c0m.